College & Workforce Readiness

Admissions Officers Say They Look at More Than Test Scores

By Caralee J. Adams — June 10, 2011 3 min read
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At many colleges, getting admitted is not all about test scores. This is welcome news for many high school students who didn’t do great on the ACT or SAT but have a solid record otherwise.

Three admissions officers from diverse public and private colleges gave their take on the “holistic” admissions process during a recent panel at a National Association for College Admission Counseling conference. While American University in Washington, D.C., was the only one of the three with an admissions process that was test-optional, representatives from Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C., and James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., said their review processes considered test scores only as part of the mix and not the most important factor in a student’s application.

“The best predictor of success is the rigor of curriculum in high school,” said David Kraus, director of admissions at Davidson, a 1,900-student, selective liberal arts college. Then, admissions counselors consider grades, and whether the student kept pace when the rigor ramped up. It’s not that students have to excel in every AP class, but Kraus said he is looking for balance, and grades are looked at through the lens of the program study.

When reviewers at James Madison University read an application, they look at it in the context of the high school the student attends, said Michael Walsh, director of admissions at the 18,000-student public university. While curriculum and grades also top his list in importance, he said officers take into account that some small high schools don’t offer AP classes. JMU then also considers test scores, essays, references, and activities, said Walsh, adding that the holistic approach is not a new concept.

All readers have the option to pull an application when it seems like the typical process would not give a fair review to that person. This might be someone with a disability, from a military family, or with some special circumstance that merits looking at the application differently, Walsh said. For every 25,000 applications, 500 might fit into this category for special review. In looking at SAT test scores, JMU takes into considers if the student is first-generation and low-income.

Davidson, interestingly, requires a peer recommendation. While students are expected to get letters from teachers and counselors, this requirement makes some students’ heads spin, said Kraus. “They think, ‘who knows me well enough, but not too well,’ ” he said.

In the writing portion of the application, Kraus said students can exert some control in the process and either really shine—or not. “I’m looking to learn the student can write, but also for voice,” he said. “I stress that they need not have survived an awful trauma” to have a good topic for the essay.

After involvement in school and community activities, Kraus said standardized testing is literally the last element considered at Davidson. “All of us go into reading a file for reasons to say, ‘yes’,” he said. Yet with an acceptance rate of just 25 percent, Kraus only gets to say “yes” just one out of four times.

Greg Grauman, director of admissions at American University, a private school with 6,700 undergraduates, said they are also looking for the right fit for the school—namely: “wonks—opinionated, smart students who want to create meaningful change in the world.”

To find these students, Grauman said admissions officers look first at curriculum and grades, then at essays and extracurricular activities. Being test-optional, if the SAT is provided, it’s a factor, but not a determining factor. “There is no one element that will determine if a student is admitted or not,” he said. For those students who don’t submit essays, AU looks closely at other elements in the application.

Another element for prospective students to consider: Showing an interest in the institution. While this isn’t a factor at JMU, Davidson and AU do take into account students showing genuine interest by visiting, emailing, or attending informational sessions.

For a list of the 850 four-year colleges that are test-optional, see Fair Test, the national center for fair and open testing.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.